God's Simplicity: God Cannot Learn Anything New
God cannot learn anything new. Perhaps that is a new idea to you? The church, when it has been sound and orthodox, has always confessed this (see the WCF 2.1). It is an implication of at least two of the Triune God’s incommunicable attributes: simplicity and omniscience. Omniscience simply means “all knowledge.” God is all-knowing. Simplicity has to do with God’s essence. God cannot be divided up into parts. We will momentarily delve into these two attributes and how it is that God cannot learn anything or learn anything new.
Before we delve into the niceties of these divine realities (really, a singular divine reality) it would be wise to address at least one biblical passage that seems to suggest that God can learn something new. Let’s turn to Genesis 22:12. In this well-known account of God’s test of Abraham’s faith and consequent obedience concerning the sacrifice of Isaac, the angel of the Lord has a conversation with Abraham and declares to him in the first person (suggesting that this is God himself speaking, I suggest this is a pre-incarnate appearance of the Son) “…now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.” This is not merely an angel declaring that he has learned something new, but God the Son saying this. The Son is essentially God and so equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit (although he knows in a modally different way from the Father and the Spirit). What do we do with this?
As John Calvin pointed out years ago, God condescends to communicate with us in ways that we can understand him much as a parent will speak in very basic ways to a young child so to enable the child to understand truly but not totally. This is how God communicates with us about himself. We err when we treat language about God, which he speaks about himself in Scripture, as if it unveiled absolutely everything that could be said about him. God’s thoughts are so much higher than our thoughts and he is so much greater and grander than all that we can think or imagine (Isaiah 55:8). It is not the case that God cannot communicate with us in our language and in ways we can understand. Indeed, he can, but there is divine mystery entailed in the least thing God reveals about himself. All this is to say that God is not a man that he should repent (and where Scripture says he repents God is once again condescending to our level and is speaking in ways we finite creatures can understand and relate to). We can rest in God’s Word and words to us. They are utterly true and reliable. But they are not exhaustive. Finite creatures cannot totally and exhaustively understand and appreciate an infinite Creator.
Now back to the two incommunicable attributes we briefly considered earlier. Unlike things like goodness and justice and righteousness and holiness which God calls us to emulate and imitate in our own finite and limited way, incommunicable attributes are aspects of God’s nature which make him who and what he is and without which he could not be God. Even this way of talking about his attributes is a condescension of great moment. We noted that God is all-knowing and that he is not composed of parts that are prior to and more basic than himself. God is omniscient and simple.
God knows all things that are from our perspective, past, present, and future. He knows them all at once in one grand intuition. God knows all things as a Trinitarian eternal being. He knows in ways only God can know things. We finite human creatures know in a finite way what we know. We are incapable of knowing in one grand intuition. Even after we have dwelt in the new heavens and new earth for ten million years and have continued to grow in holiness and understanding we will not be omniscient or simple. We learn seriatum, piece by intellectual or experiential piece. Our knowledge can increase, and sadly, it can decrease. Our hair can be fire engine red and later turn gray and then white. We can gain and lose weight. We can have smooth skin and later have wrinkles. While we have souls, even these can be destroyed (human souls and angels are not simple). We err when we read our limitations back onto God.
Since God is simple and omniscient, he cannot gain knowledge from deduction or induction. He cannot learn anything new. Really, God cannot learn. This is no weakness or lack of life on God’s part. While God uses this kind of language in Scripture to help us understand and relate to him, this is a stooping low for our benefit. Philosophers err when they talk as if God is unable to communicate with us. That is nonsense. He can and has done so in the pages of Scripture, which he purposely communicated with us through human writers. The Holy Spirit still speaks in the words of Scripture.
God knows everything. We do not. That is why we are dependent upon God for life, light, and loveliness. God is not dependent on us. If he could learn anything new, he would be dependent on us for gaining such new knowledge. To reject simplicity and omniscience is to make God over in our image. I seem to remember God telling us he does not want us doing that (Exod. 20:3-6).
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.